A wry exercise in absurdism whose most imaginative idea is a soap bar that instantly puts people to sleep, “Free and Easy” may have the same effect on some viewers. But those who can roll with its measured pace and playfully nonsensical story will find the sum impact drolly diverting. Geng Jun’s Hong Kong-produced latest feature, set in a faceless northeast mainland China burg, is exactly the kind of rarefied exercise in small-scaled universal insights, idiosyncrasies, and humor that has found a home in festivals for decades.
A middle-aged man (Zhang Zhiyong) walks around virtually empty streets; it’s unclear whether they’re empty because it’s the middle of freezing winter, or if the decrepit town really is as abandoned as it looks. He tries to sell his wares to the few passers-by. Encouraged to sniff the soap he carries in a suitcase, they get a big surprise: Most immediately fall to the ground, unconscious, allowing their money and valuables to be pocketed by the devious salesman. If they fail to pass out, or otherwise create a problem, he’s got a handgun to encourage cooperation.
This odd criminal enterprise turns out to be but one of a number of cons being run by all kinds of desperate sorts here. Another notable scam comes from an alleged monk (Xu Gang) who claims he needs donations to rebuild his fire-destroyed Buddhist temple. That plight briefly gets him charitably taken in by a gormless Christian naif (Gu Benbin) who spends his time quoting Jesus and posting flyers for his mother, who’s been missing for seven years (though one suspects she just ran off).
Also in the business of forlorn flyer-posting is a reforestation worker (Xue Baohe) terribly concerned about the whereabouts of a sizable sapling he thinks someone stole. He’s probably right about that, since nearly everyone here is a thief of one petty, preposterous sort or another. His wife (Wang Xuxu), at least, is in the legit biz of renting out rooms to boarders (including the soap guy). Her own grievances include having to fend off the unwanted attentions of a persistent police officer (Zhang Xun), one of two particularly useless local cops (the other essayed by Yuan Liguo).
These simply drawn, amusingly played figures crisscross and interact in ways whose off-center humor is sometimes rendered a little too low-key by the film’s overall mannered slowness. Still, as slight as “Free and Easy” is, it does build to a satisfying crescendo of minimalist slapstick before fading out on a shrug-inducingly cryptic note. Like characters in a Beckett play, the hapless human specimens here ultimately illustrate the simultaneous pathos and humor of survival, which they’re committed to simply for lack of a better option. The joke of the title is that the only thing that comes “free and easy” to these people is getting knocked out cold by the soporific soap.
Wang Weihua’s handsome widescreen lensing makes fine use of the location’s bleak landscape and nondescript, often crumbling architecture. The other notable package contribution, albeit one sparsely utilized, comes from the Second Hand Rose band’s stripped-down rock score.